Voters in Germany's most populous state strengthened a centre-left regional government which Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives portrayed as irresponsibly spendthrift.
German opposition delivers embarrassing defeat for Merkel
BERLIN // Voters in Germany's most populous state strengthened a centre-left regional government which Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives portrayed as irresponsibly spendthrift, and inflicted an embarrassing defeat yesterday on the German leader's party, projections showed.
The centre-left Social Democrats and Greens - Germany's main opposition parties - won combined support of about 51 per cent in the election in North Rhine-Westphalia state, according to ARD television based on exit polls and early counting.
That would be enough to give them a majority in the state legislature, which they narrowly missed in the last regional election two years ago.
Support for Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats was seen dropping to 26 per cent from more than 34 per cent, their worst showing in the state since the Second World War. But the pro-market Free Democrats, Mrs Merkel's struggling partners in the national government, performed respectably - polling more than 8 per cent to buck speculation that they might fail to win seats.
The incumbent government of popular governor Hannelore Kraft had been favoured to win, particularly after a much-criticised and sometimes gaffe-prone campaign by conservative challenger Norbert Roettgen, Mrs Merkel's federal environment minister. The vote came as Germany starts looking towards national elections due late next year.
"This is a crashing defeat for Mrs Merkel and her minister," said Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrats' general secretary.
"The defeat is bitter, it is clear and it really hurts," Mr Roettgen said minutes after the polls closed, announcing that he would give up the leadership of the Christian Democrats' local branch.
"This is, above all, my personal defeat."
North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional centre-left stronghold, voted three years ahead of schedule after its current minority government, made up of Germany's main national opposition parties, narrowly failed to get a budget passed in March.
Mrs Merkel said then that it offered an opportunity for the region to elect a government that wouldn't take on "ever more debt".
While national polls show that Germans support Mrs Merkel's austerity stance in Europe, prominent Christian Democrat Peter Hintze said yesterday that voters in North Rhine-Westphalia viewed budget issues as "abstract."
During the campaign, Mr Roettgen faced criticism for not committing himself to stay in state-level politics and for saying on a television show, in an apparent attempt at irony which backfired, that "regrettably" voters rather than his party would decide whether he became governor.
Mr Roettgen irritated his party by declaring that yesterday's election would decide "whether Angela Merkel's course in Europe is strengthened or whether it is weakened by the re-election of a pro-debt government in Germany." Mrs Merkel said it was an important state election, "no more and no less."
The result may help stabilise the struggling Free Democrats, who can build on a surprisingly strong performance last weekend in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein after a string of miserable results over the past year.
Projections showed the upstart Pirate Party, which has surged in recent months with a platform of near-total transparency and internet freedom, entering its fourth state legislature with support of about 7.5 per cent.